A Major Gift Fundraising Rant

A Major Gift Fundraising Rant


18 May 2021


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


I need to get something off my chest.


Major gift fundraising is the most important fundraising you can do.


OK – that feels better.

Major gift fundraising is NOT dependent on the scale of the projects being funded, and it’s not dependent on the wealth of the donor(s).

Major gift fundraising is about getting to know people – donors – personally. To the point that you know WHY they will be motivated to give something extraordinary for them. And sometimes to the point that you know they will NOT give something to you because they have higher priorities elsewhere.

Major gifts are major because they represent a major decision for the donor. ANYONE can be a major donor. ANYONE can give a major gift.

Major gift fundraising – building relationships with real people – is important even if the exercise does not result in the donation of a major gift. Deciding to work with people as individuals and not as some collective psychographic profile changes the way donors see the organization and changes the way we see donors. Both are important.

Major gift fundraising is highly correlated with organizational resiliency. Organizations that knew their donors really well tended to be the ones who sailed through the recession of 2008 and 2009. Organizations more dependent on arms-length fundraising did not fare as well.

Major gift fundraising is a discipline. You meet someone – establish an initial connection. You have conversations with them to the point that you begin to know what makes them tick. You know why they support the organization and what parts hold particular interest for them. You begin to understand their motivations for giving at all and giving to your organization in particular. You begin to understand why they might make a major decision to support something you are doing – some part of your mission that resonates for them.

In major gift fundraising relationships, you both know where you’re headed, so you relax and enjoy the journey. But eventually, you find the right project, match it with the right donors and help them do something meaningful and important.

This discipline is independent of scale.

In a perfect world, you would know every single donor this well. In a less-than-perfect world your organization as a whole would know every single donor this well. That means staff, and Board members, and other volunteers would all be involved. Major gift fundraising is an organizational priority.

But we don’t live in a perfect world. In the world we actually live in, there are way too many people giving money for you to actually know this personally. In the world we actually live in, you have a choice of people you get to know this well.

In major gift fundraising, you have to choose.

Some choose to prioritize people with wealth – people who have the potential to make a bigger difference. This is why major gift fundraising is often considered elitist. But it’s important to understand that elitism is a bias we bring to the table. Not an inherent flaw in the system.

We could easily choose to prioritize people who are generous, regardless of wealth. Or people who own land with significant ecological value. Or people who live in a certain geography. Or people who volunteer.

We practice this “elitism” all the time.

Ultimately, some of our “choice” will depend on scale – how much we need to raise.

We could also choose not to choose. We’ll get to know people who come to us. If we build it, they will come. In my view, this is not strategic. It’s happenstance. This is not major gift fundraising.


Are there other ways to raise money? Certainly.

Can you raise money online, for example? Certainly.

Crowd funding? Certainly.

Events? Certainly.

Gimmick fundraising (like the ice bucket challenge)? Certainly.

What about our appeals? Social media campaigns? Big Give Days? These are all important, too.


So what makes major gift fundraising the most important?

It’s the strategy that is based on built relationships. It’s the one that is most sensitive to the interests of the donor. It’s the reason why people will give again next year and the year after that. Why they become loyal.

It’s the reason why donors decide to become part of the solution and accept you as part of their solutions. It’s the reason why donors make room for your organization in their estate plans.

I’ve heard community-based fundraising, impact fundraising, and the like presented as alternatives to major gift fundraising. I believe these are false choices. Major gift fundraising is NOT mutually exclusive with any of these other strategies.


If you have one thing you can do today that will make the biggest difference for your current and future fundraising, have a human conversation with a donor. Go on a hike or a paddle. Get to know him or her on a personal level.

Choose a set of donors and multiply this experience. Recruit other staff and Board members to multiply this experience even further.

Don’t fit major gift fundraising around your other work. Fit the other work around building relationships with donors. Major gift fundraising is a big rock, and it needs to go into your bucket first.




I’ve been writing these past few weeks about now being a time to be less timid. (See Pep Talk and What Would it Take?)

The ground is fertile, the rains have come, the sun is shining. Now is not the time to slow down. Now is the time to grow to meet the opportunity.

Your members and donors want to be a part of that.

Go meet them.


Cheers, and Have a great week!




PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.


Photo by Foodie Girl courtesy of Stocksnap.io.



Share this!
  • Linda Sandquist
    Posted at 09:08h, 25 May

    Hi David,
    I am now a Major Gifts fundraiser at Rockford University. I loved your comments and am going to print them off to keep my inspired. I hope you are doing well!

    • David Allen
      Posted at 10:38h, 25 May

      Thank you so much, Linda. It’s nice to hear from you again.


  • Ronda
    Posted at 22:44h, 20 May

    Well said and your rant perspective take the pressure off of the organization. Your approach allows us to make new friends and share our common passions. Thanks for sharing!

  • Alice Hudson Pell
    Posted at 08:54h, 18 May


  • Leyna Bernstein
    Posted at 08:08h, 18 May

    Just forwarded to our ED, Philanthropy Director and External Affairs Committee Chair. This is one for the ages!

    • David Allen
      Posted at 08:20h, 18 May


      Thank you so much for the comment. I hope that everyone will find someone to forward it to. As a community, we have a lot of work to do. Time to get busy!